Pluralistic: 26 Feb 2021

Today's links

K-Zombies (permalink)

When you and your friends put your fingers on the ouija board planchette and it starts moving around, there's a chance your friends are just yanking your chain – but just as possible is that your friends are experiencing the ideomotor response.

That's when your unconscious mind directs your muscles without your conscious knowledge. The movement of the planchette doesn't tell you what's going on in the spirit world, but it does tell you something about the internal weather of your friend's psyche, fears and hopes.

Our narratives are social-scale planchettes, directed by mass ideomotor response. When a fake news story takes hold, it reveals a true fact: namely, the shared, internal models of how the world really works.

Fake news is an oracle, in other words.

There's no spirit-realm directing planchettes. Supernatural phenomena are nonsense, in all their guises. Mediums are fraudsters or deluded – and so are soothsayers who claim to be able to predict the future. That goes for fortune-tellers and futurists alike.

A shocking number of self-described "rational" science fiction writers share the delusional view that they can predict the future. These pulp Nostradamii point to "predictions" of sf that have "come true" and claim to have an inside line on the world of tomorrow.

Sf has an important relationship to the future, though! It can be a planchette: all the futures imagined by all the sf writers are a kind of mutation-space, and the fitness factor that determines whether a story thrives or sinks is whether it captures public imagination.

Sf writers and readers are a means for society to reflect back, amplify and examine our unarticulated hopes and fears about our present technology. Sf doesn't predict the future, but sf readers and writers do an excellent job of predicting the present.

And since the present is the standing wave where the past is being transformed into the future, knowing about the present can be a source of insights into what's coming – and not just because sf reveals what's going on in the present, but also because it influences it.

People who are captured by imaginative, futuristic parables about the problems and possibilities of technology acquire a set of intuition-pumps for coping with the future when it arrives, reflexive views and actions about what the future demands of us.

Gene Rodenberry didn't predict the Motorola flip-phone. Rather, when a generation of Motorola designers and engineers were asked to make a mobile communications device their minds immediately flew to the Star Trek communicators they grew up with.

Thinking of fantastic fiction as measurement device and influence machine is a productive way to pick apart the meaning of literary trends.

As I wrote in my intro to the bicentennial re-release of FRANKENSTEIN, the rise and fall of Shelley's book tracks to the rise and fall of fears related to the book's various themes:

So what are we to make of K-zombies? Korean pop culture is experiencing a golden age of zombie movies, games, comics and other media.

Zombies have a lot of different themes, of course, and some are easy to map to the current situation: the fear of contagion and the need to distance yourself from loved ones who have become infected. The parallels to covid hardly need explaining.

But the K-zombie phenomenon predates the pandemic, and zombie stories aren't merely contagion stories – they're often stories about the lurking bestiality of nearly everyone around us.

That's behind stories like The Walking Dead, about the propensity of all our "normal" friends and neighbors to transform into an insensate, rampaging mob. These zombie stories are a throwback to the "cozy catastrophes" of John Wyndham and co:

These are stories of racial and class anxiety, of xenophobia and the literal othering of someone who seems to be just like you but is actually a secret monster. Again, on a divided peninsula, it's not hard to see how stories of lurking otherness would catch hold.

Zombie stories are also stories about the fragility of social cohesion: stories about how we're never "all in this together" and how, when the chips are down, it'll be "the war of all against all." That, too, feels very zeitgeisty given recent South Korean politics.

South Korea has an ugly, authoritarian past that is at odds with its founding myth as the "good Korea," the "democratic Korea." But the post-war reconstruction of the country by the US elevated an elite to a position of near-total authority and impunity.

They abused this power in ghastly ways, running forced-labor camps for poor people and people with disabilities, with rampant physical and sexual abuse. Families who lost their loved ones were traumatized to learn that they'd ended up in the camps.

These forced-labor camps (which continue in a slightly modified form to this day) supplied slaves to chaebols, the conglomerates that represent the country on a world stage. Unsurprisingly, the leadership of these companies is also grossly corrupt:

Korea is also riven by messianic cults, and the leaders of these cults have close ties to the Korean political class, an incredibly politically destabilizing fact that has caused recent Korean governments to collapse:

South Korea, in other words, isn't just haunted by the spectre of aggression from the north – but also by the possibility of internal rupture. It has a huge, authoritarian secret police force that has been caught secretly meddling in electoral politics.

Far from reining in this spookocracy, the South Korean political class has tried to hand them even MORE powers, with LESS oversight. Today is the fifth anniversary of the Korean opposition's filibuster to stop the worst of these.

(Seo Ki-Ho, a politician with the affectionate nickname "Milhouse" for his resemblance to the Simpsons character read the Korean edition of my novel LITTLE BROTHER into the record during the filibuster!)

This othering is also sharply illustrated in the country's culture of misogynistic voyeurism, which goes beyond "upskirt" videos and includes a roaring trade in videos captured with hidden cameras in toilets, changing rooms and hotel rooms.

It's hard to overstate the reach of this practice, and its political salience: it has provoked a vast mass-movement of women and allies demanding an end to the practice and a reckoning with institutional sexism:

Zombies aren't ever just about contagion – they're also always an expression of a deep anxiety that your neighbors aren't what they seem, that in a pinch, they'll turn on you, and not just because they've been infected, but also to protect themselves and their comfort.

US zombie booms always have an element of this: 1950s (reds under the bed); 1980s (red menace redux); 2000s (immigration "crisis"), etc. It'd be amazing if the only thing driving K-zombies' popularity was the pandemic, or even less plausibly, a mere aesthetic coincidence.

Privacy is not property (permalink)

When all you have is market orthodoxy, everything looks like a market failure. Take privacy: giant, rapacious corporations have instrumented the digital and physical worlds to spy on us all the time, so some people think they should pay us for our data.

There's a pretty rich theoretical history explaining why this "data dividend" is a stupid idea. First of all, private information isn't very property-like. And not just because it shares all the problems of digital works (infinitely, instantaneously copyable at zero cost).

Private information makes for bad "property" because it is "owned" by multiple, overlapping parties who generally disagree about when and who to share it with. When you and I have a conversation, we both own the fact that the conversation took place.

What happens if I won't sell, but you will? Tech companies are really good at finding the cheapest seller of an information good, after all. For example, whenever you visit a "quality newspaper's" site, there's a real-time auction to bid on the right to show you ads.

Say there are 13 bidders for that right. One gets to show you an ad, but the other 12 get something too: your unique identifier and the fact that you read, say, the New York Times.

That fact is then sold on to garbage chumbox sites like Tabouleh, whose pitch to advertisers is "I can show your ads to NYT readers at 15% of the price that the Times charges." If the same fact is "owned" by lots of people, it's a commodity.

Buyers will find the lowest, least-discerning seller. What's more, you can't solve this by requiring consensus of all "owners" of a fact before it is disclosed – who owns the fact that your boss sexually harassed you: you or him? Does he get a veto over your disclosures?

Even if we could get property rights to work in privacy (which, for the record, we cannot), all we'd manage to do is transform privacy into a luxury good wherein poor people are coerced into selling their data for pennies, as Malavika Jayaram reminds us:

Data dividends also require someone to set prices on data, and chances are that price will be set by a privacy-invading tech company or a regulator in thrall to them:

And whatever the price, it won't capture the true cost, as Hayley Tsukayama reminds us: "Low-income Americans and often communities of color should not be incentivized to pour more data into a system that already exploits them and uses data to discriminate against them."

"Privacy is a human right, not a commodity."

It's not too late to end "pay for privacy," because, as Dipayan Ghosh says, behavioral data is "temporally sensitive" – companies need more of it all the time, meaning we can still push back.

To get this right, we have to stop pretending that data makes good property and that therefore markets will solve data problems. And just because data isn't property, it doesn't follow that it isn't valuable.

Far from it: the most valuable things we know of (human beings) are not property precisely because treating them as property would cheapen them. We humans are so valuable that we have a complex set of rules just for us.

My daughter isn't my property, but I have an interest in her. So does my wife, and her grandparents, and her teachers and school district, and Child Protective Services…and so does she. This "interest"-based system acknowledged the complex web of overlapping claims.

We have a whole discipline – one that doesn't intersect with markets at all – that describes these relations, with specialized concepts like "nurturance rights" and "self-determination rights" (thanks to Rory Pickens for introducing me to these concepts).

All of these points and more are made in "Why data ownership is the wrong approach to protecting privacy," a 2019 Brookings Institute paper by Cameron F Kerry and John B Morris, who relate them to pending legislation and relevant case-law.

"By licensing the use of their information in exchange for monetary consideration, we may be worse off than under the current notice-and-choice regime…A property-based system also disregards interests besides property that individuals have in personal information."

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Midnighters: YA horror trilogy mixes Lovecraft with adventure

#15yrsago RIP, Octavia Butler, “genius” science fiction writer

#10yrsago TVOntario’s online archive, including Prisoners of Gravity!

#5yrsago Ghostwriter: Trump didn’t write “Art of the Deal,” he read it

#5yrsago Think you’re entitled to compensation after being wrongfully imprisoned in California? Nope.

#5yrsago South Korean lawmakers stage filibuster to protest “anti-terror” bill, read from Little Brother

#5yrsago BC town votes to install imaginary GPS trackers in criminals

#5yrsago NHS junior doctors show kids what’s they do, kids demand better of Jeremy Hunt

#1yrago Clarence Thomas admits he blew it on Brand X

#1yrago Medicare for All would be the biggest take-home pay increase in a generation

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Schneier (, Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 515 words (115152 total).

  • A short story, "Jeffty is Five," for The Last Dangerous Visions. Yesterday's progress: 285 words (7561 total).

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Privacy Without Monopoly: Data Protection and Interoperability (Part 2)
Upcoming appearances:

Latest book:

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla